There’s a free-floating stainless steel ring that rests against the rinse sprayer nozzle of a commercial dish-washing machine. The ring is ostensibly there to prevent the nozzle from flailing about when released.
In reality, it’s a sleigh bell.
When a kitchen is really rocking, that little ring jingles and jangles constantly as the dishwasher shakes the nozzle back and forth, rinsing plates and pots. If you close your eyes you could find yourself imagining a trip to grandmother’s house in a horse-drawn sleigh, a cup of hot chocolate in hand, a fur robe over your lap. But as temperatures in the kitchen climb toward 100 humid degrees and beyond, the steam from the hot chocolate becomes the atmosphere you breathe, and the T-shirt or chef’s coat you’re wearing becomes a sodden fur robe you can’t throw aside.
The ticket printer whirs constantly, a sound that cooks hear in their dreams. It’s an ancient joke, but when one of the line cooks mutters under his breath “man, somebody oughta turn that thing off!” — we all giggle maniacally, sweaty faces under-lit by burner flames, the laughter of the damned.
The expediter (the person organizing and garnishing dishes to go out) is shouting to be heard. He needs a certain dish “now, now — right now!” to sell a table. A cook somehow bends the laws of physics and puts the plate in the window in half the time it would normally take. (I swear this happens regularly. I sincerely believe all restaurant cooks are allotted a certain number of time warps to use when things are getting really real.)
The kitchen door swings open. The wall of sound from the dining room, like a laugh track from an ‘80s sitcom, adds to the aural anarchy. Servers pile in, their wide eyes ringed in pale, sweaty flesh, nostrils flaring like a racehorse’s. They have questions about the guests’ allergies and requests for substitutions. They forgot to ring something in and need it on the fly. They beg for sides of condiments they just can’t get to the computer to request because there’s a line to use the point-of-sale terminal. “Please! A side of apple butter! I’ll ring it in in a minute!”
The lead line-cook is running out of sauté pans. He yells to the dishwashers for a pan pick-up, which means: “Get this bus-tub of dirty pans out from under me, and return them to me in a clean, shiny stack instantly.” More sleigh bells. Just as he ladles clarified butter into his last remaining sauté, a whole regiment of immaculate pans is delivered.
“I need salad plates! And somebody get the backup greens from walk-in No. 2!” yells the lead garde-manger. Salad plates are delivered, but they are still wet and hot from the dish machine. They have to be dry and chilled before they can be used to serve salad. The pantry worker shoves them into the lowboy cooler. Clack and clatter. Salad greens are brought to the line in the nick of time.
An empty soup bowl is dropped. “Broom!” yells everyone. Someone always says: “Just put that anywhere” — the classic response to anything falling to the floor.
The ticket printer grinds again, this time for a long, long time. This means one of two things: An order from a big-top, made up of eight or more diners — which the servers almost always warn the kitchen of upon seating — or a ticket full of modifications. Modifications such as swapping out ingredients, sauces on the side or changes for nut allergies or gluten-free restrictions, etc. I glance over as the expo (expediter ) examines the ticket; I see a sea of red ink. Red ink indicates modifications. It’s only a four-top, but the diners have a lot of special requests. We cooks hold our collective breath.
“What the …” says the expo, darkly. “Get me Mandy! Now!” Mandy, the server, is already pushing through the kitchen door. She, as calmly as a Zen master, clarifies the modifications. Expo understands and scribbles notes on the ticket. A cold line-cook whispers “no nuts, no nuts, no nuts, no nuts” to himself to make sure he overcomes muscle memory as he composes an appetizer plate.
When service is over, cooks, expo, the chef, dishwashers and servers high-five each other, despite that our heads are throbbing from all that noise and dehydration.
In the end, you really can’t serve dinner without the din.
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, Café Lou Lou, Marketplace @ Theater Square, Fontleroy’s and Harvest.